Music

Consumer Retorts

by

Tom Zé’s peculiar contribution to the Tropicalistas’
still-thrilling 1968 collaborative album Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circencis
was the satiric antidevelopment anthem “Parque Industrial,” which
sang of a Penny Lane industrial park where laughing children became mindless consumers,
and taunted listeners with a Brazilianized repetition of the English refrain
“made in Brazil.” Thirty years on, Zé is once again employing
stolen goods to castigate industrialization in its ickier manifestations. Not only does Fabrication
Defect
‘s cover resemble a Pedro Bell painting, but the album’s conceit is a
post–(George) Clintonian denunciation of First World placebo purveyors who perceive
the Third World masses as subhuman androids. Only what’s emphasized here, thankfully,
are the disenfranchised’s imperfections: charming defects that include religious
hypocrisy, curiosity, stupidity, raging youthful hormones, and, predictably, a love of
dance.

You can consider Zé’s cultural cannibalism to be appropriation,
sampling, pillage, copyright infringement, fair use, or just good old Tropicalism. Zé
himself renames it the “esthetics of plagiarism,” and also arrastão, a term he uses for the sources he annotates below specific songs, and which translates
as ” ‘wilding’ with a purpose, i.e. robbery.”
According to Zé, we’re into a new, postcomposer “plagi-combinator
era,” in which virtually everything can be integrated into pop music.

So what else is new? Well, for one thing Zé doesn’t simply cut
and paste digital bits together into a martial disco beat, preferring unlikely material
displacements of musique concrète, such as the floor sander heard on “O Olho
do Lago” (The Eye Lake), quotes from Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, and Veloso,
and subverted religious tropes from the Bible and Saint Augustine. Moreover, having
returned to his Irara hometown in the northeast of Brazil, Zé once again occupies a
peculiar middle ground between luscious Bahia, to the east, and the mountainous desert
region to the west, where Portuguese settlers intermarried with the Indian population
during the 16th century. According to Zé, the area still maintains a real Middle Ages
vibe along with a rural oral tradition of both magical and unmediated song improvisation,
signs of which are found all over Fabrication. I’m guessing a certain
scholarly knowledge of Brazilian folk tropes would come in handy in decoding the lovely
medievalism of “Politicar”–but you don’t have to be
Charles Perrone to get the gist of lyrics like “Screw your usury/In the
multinational/Shove it up your Virgin/You son of a cross.” And so on.

The Tom Zé most Americans have access to is a curated Zé different
from the singer known–or forgotten, for the most part–in Brazil. The brilliant
tunes David Byrne chose for 1990’s The Best of Tom Zé are a far cry from the
more mainstream strings-and-horns “sonatas” heard, for example, on 20
Preferidas Tom Zé
(RGE import), a ’70s-dominated collection that shares only one
track with Byrne’s pick of the litter. Like Captain Beefheart’s misbegotten Unconditionally
Guaranteed
, many of these “hits” find a truly idiosyncratic
artist looking toward the charts, only in Zé’s case with far better tunes. In 1998,
on the other hand, credibility arrives through the electronic remix factory. Which is why
Zé connoisseurs like Tortoise, Stereolab, the High Llamas, and Sean Lennon are all
contributing to an upcoming album of Fabrication remixes. (None of the ones I’ve
heard, however, holds a candle to the consummate Northeast accordion techno of Fabrication‘s
“Xiquexique,” whose lyrics contain a nod to the late, great Chico
Science.)

Fabrication–itself pitched significantly less lovelorn than
1992’s The Hips of Tradition–contains a handful of absolutely perfect
songs, the sort of exquisitely tuneful, glisteningly produced, faultlessly performed
Brazilian gems that lodge in your head and heart with timeless precision.
“Esteticar” (To Estheticize), with its chirpy chorus and chittering
percussion, sounds at first like a thousand other great Brazilian sambas; you’d
hardly expect it to harbor Zé’s vituperative “inter-semiotic”
mission statement. Another perfectly arranged vocal chorus heard in “Juventude
Javali” croons, “The wine of open legs/soaks the offerings on the
altar/Screams, sperm and hand-cuffs/The fury of pure lavender,” and it’s
all so pretty and seemingly effortless you could just cry.

Tom Zé often reminds me of another cult populist and thoughtful plunderer of the vernacular: Van Dyke Parks. (Listen to Zé’s “Valsar” [To Waltz] for an obvious link.) Both composers love popular culture; only the popular culture they love happens not to be all that popular anymore. Nevertheless, they continue to dive into the trash bin of history, dragging back their objets and rearranging them into highly personalized songs of taste and ideology. Sly, resilient, and utterly original, artists like Parks and Zé appear to finally be entering pop consciousness through the back door. Just another defect to celebrate.